PSB in Sri Lanka

Where are we headed?


D.E.W. Gunasekera


I wonder whether there is a future at all for public service broadcasters (PSBs). Factors beyond our control, namely technological advances, the globalization process and growth of monopolies, decide the future of public service broadcasting. Can we conceive a model of PSB, which can serve the public interest and can also make money, independent of political influences and governmental control? The question in my mind always is whether these contradictory provisions can ever be reconciled in the model.

I would like to share my experience and raise some questions in this regard. The crux of the problem is our political culture. With the entry of the private sector increasing competition, I find that the political culture is degenerating.

An example
We are in for a general election. Our Parliament was dissolved and elec­tion will take place in October 2000. Earlier, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and ITN had a monopoly for election propaganda. Before the entry of the private sector in 1990, electoral law clearly specified that all political speeches during the election could be tele­cast only through the SLBC and SLRC. The Election Commission and the electoral laws specified the time and location.

After 1990, six private channels were added.

With the Presidential election, we realised that every private station telecasting political programmes of various political parties was in con­tradiction of electoral law. We raised the matter before the Attorney General and the Election Commission; the Attorney General gave a rul­ing that the rule does not apply to the private channels. According to election laws, a candidate could speak only for 19 minutes on radio or television but a candidate could speak for unlimited time on the private channels. The whole spirit of the election law was that each party and each candidate should be given equal time and equal opportunity. The spirit of the law was completely violated. The government is helpless; the police and the army are helpless, the election commission is help­less. There was no doubt that the election was fair, but there was room for abuse and misuse in the private sector stations in favour of particu­lar candidates.

This new scenario came after the entry of the private sector immedi­ately before the presidential elections, and after the presidential elec­tions I took up the matter by way of a memorandum to the government. After that, the minister announced some amendments to the election law to the effect that the election commission would have the power to monitor all the broadcasts, whether public or private, in the interest of the public. We are soon facing another election. The new election will cause the PSBs to experience immense pressure from the politicians for the simple reason that the private sector is going to abuse and misuse broadcast time in favour of particular candidates. It is now permissible by law.

Uniform laws for all players
It is essential to have a uniform law applicable for both private sector as well as the public sector. Electoral laws are among the many legisla­tions which need to be amended, in addition to media legislation. Some people say the state owned broadcasters should not dabble in politics. But the private sector is entitled to, and they have the liberty to do so. This seems untenable - simply because that company belongs to one individual, he has the liberty and the freedom to behave as he likes, whereas the public sector cannot, simply because the capital belongs to the state and does not even have the right to a comment. They don't have freedom of the press, freedom of the media and not even freedom to make a comment. This is a wrong concept in the modern notion of democracy. The media person in the private sector has complete free­dom and is above the law. Journalists and media persons in the public sector not only have to face the audience, but may even lose their jobs.

We do not have the freedom that the private sector has. This is one of the main issues of contention in Sri Lanka today. For the PSB there are certain constraints and limitations. Take the legal side: SLRC, although a corporation, is just like any other governmental department respon-sible to the people. We are required by law to follow all the Cabinet decisions, Gazette circulars or Minister's circulars with regard to invest-ment. We are answerable to government in general and to Parliament in particular. If we have to go to the Parliament and answer every question posed by the opposition and be hemmed in by various constraints, then how can PSBs function within the legal framework of a corporation?

My suggestion would be that the PSB should be converted into a public company. Let the capital belong to the state but it should function completely as an autonomous body. A constituted committee should appoint the board of directors. The committee will have the leaders of the house, the Opposition, Prime Minister and other members of Parlia-ment. Making it independent, as far as practicable, would depend on ensuring a proper political culture. A member of the Board may be from a particular political party with certain political convictions, but if pro-fessional values are upheld, he can act independently and impartially.

Professionalism and self-reliance
Another fundamental problem facing PSB is the level of professional-ism. Highly professional people can withstand pressure from the politi-cians. Many ills will be corrected if PSBs can operate on a professional basis. That will strengthen the anchor of the PSB to carry forward their mission.

The other fundamental question is: How can PSBs be made financially self-reliant? Today, we are facing the problem of generating financial resources. We had a guaranteed source of revenue i.e. licence fee. In fact, we were the collecting agency of the licence fee on behalf the government. This year, the Minister of Finance announced that the li-cence fee would be abolished. The licence fee we collected in 1999 was Sri Lankan Rupees 60 million approximately. Today we have no source of income other than from commercials.

Meanwhile, as public service broadcasters, we are required to accomplish many national and social obligations. For instance, only the SLBC station telecasts educational programmes, We devote nearly three hours per day for formal education. We are spending about 20% of our income for government programmes/developmental projects/government pro-paganda: for the President, country, war and law. Within that, a big budget is spent on war-related programming, anti-terrorism etc.

Sri Lanka is a comparatively small market and our expertise in market-ing is restricted. The total advertising revenue is Rupees 2500 million annually - 45% from television, 35% from print media and 20% from radio. Now it has come to a saturation point, because advertising rev-enue is also tied up with the national economy. Our economic growth is about 4% and advertising income is restricted. The multiple public and private television and radio broadcasters are fighting for a share of that Rs.2500 million. If there is no end to the war and no expansion of the economy, the market will not expand. Therefore, within this framework, we have no scope to improve our income. On the other hand, we are losing our existing income from the licence fees. In this context it is a major challenge to arrive at a sustainable PSB model or formula.


D.E.W. Gunasekara is the Chairman of Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, the national public television network.